Likeable hit-and-miss Christopher Guest-style comedy will be cat-nip to musical theatre lovers everywhere 

Theatre Camp

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘Theatre Camp’

Dirs: Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman. US. 2023. 94mins

A tribute to musical theatre and its exuberant, sometimes foolhardy practitioners, Theater Camp will be catnip for its target audience while feeling more than a tad indulgent to everyone else. Making their feature debut, directors Molly Gordon and Nick Lieberman follow a floundering summer drama camp that’s in danger of being closed down — unless, of course, the faculty can put on one last great show — which sets the stage for affectionate ribbing of the egos, pretensions and delusions of those who live to perform on stage. This likeable comedy, picked up by Searchlight in Park City in one of the festival’s major deals, suffers from the inevitable hit-or-miss ratio of its improv-heavy script, although the film does find its footing during its closing musical numbers.  

It’s clear the actors know well the theatre-junkie cliches they’re mocking

This Sundance entry features several hip comic actors and legitimate-theatre veterans — including Dear Evan Hansen Tony-winner Ben Platt — and should cater to musical theatre fans, who will relish the cheeky references to famous shows. Theater Camp makes use of a light mockumentary style, and those fond of Christopher Guest’s celebrations of eccentric subcultures may find sufficient laughs here. 

The long-running New York State summer theatre camp AdirondACTS has been led by force of nature Joan (Amy Sedaris), but when she slips into a coma, her clueless, uncreative son Troy (Jimmy Tatro) must take over. Fearful that a snooty rival drama camp, which is far better funded, will take over AdirondACTS, the camp’s instructors — including drama teacher Amos (Platt) and musical director Rebecca-Diane (Gordon) — decide to rally their young students to mount a blowout show to honour Joan and save the faded institution. 

Theater Camp has a broad comedic energy, and its jabs are all fairly gentle, underlining the affection Gordon and Lieberman have for this milieu. But even those who don’t know the difference between Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber will be able to appreciate the film’s skewering of overly dramatic costume designers, nerdy theatre techs, and heavily affected young performers. The film includes all these quirky individuals in its warm embrace — not to mention Troy, who’s too busy posting videos on social media to care about all this artsy stuff. 

The screenplay, credited to four people (including Gordon and Lieberman), follows a familiar trajectory. This is is a classic underdog tale in which our scrappy heroes must work feverishly to stage one last-ditch production. Naturally, that production hardly looks like a winner, although Amos and Rebecca-Diane are convinced that their searing portrait of their benefactor, Joan, Still, will be a masterpiece.  

Playing longtime AdirondACTS teachers who take their jobs way too seriously, Platt and Gordon have the weathered chemistry of an old married couple, and it’s clear the actors know well the theatre-junkie cliches they’re mocking. But the cast as a whole is hampered by one-note characters who aren’t especially vivid. This is especially true of Tatro’s Troy, a rather flat alpha-bro idiot who will come to cherish his mother’s camp, even if he doesn’t have much appreciation for art himself. One can feel the moments in which the ensemble has been encouraged to ad-lib their dialogue, resulting in too many scenes that are flabby rather than hilariously cutting. 

What’s strongest here are the original songs that go into the climactic debut of Joan, Still. In collaboration with production designers Charlotte Royer and Jordan Janota, Gordon and Lieberman understand that the staging of this rushed-together musical doesn’t have to be good — in fact, it’s funnier because it’s not — but it does need to convey the boundless enthusiasm of true believers who want to give their audience a little razzle-dazzle. The directors, who were part of the team that wrote the songs, make even the dopiest tune feel like these teachers’ idea of Broadway excellence, and the chasm between the characters’ delusion and reality is often quite charming. Theater Camp is ultimately too uneven and unfocused to earn a curtain call, but like its marginally talented protagonists, it does its best with what it has.


Production companies: Picturestart, Topic Studios, Gloria Sanchez Productions

International sales: WME, and 

Producers: Erik Feig, Samie Kim Falvey, Julia Hammer, Ryan Heller, Maria Zuckerman, Jessica Elbaum, Will Ferrell, Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt 

Screenplay: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt, based on the short film by Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Nick Lieberman, Ben Platt

Cinematography: Nate Hurtsellers

Production design: Charlotte Royer, Jordan Janota

Editing: Jon Philpot

Music: James McAlister, Mark Sonnenblick

Main cast: Noah Galvin, Molly Gordon, Ben Platt, Jimmy Tatro, Patti Harrison, Nathan Lee Graham, Ayo Edibiri, Owen Thiele, Alan Kim, Caroline Aaron, Amy Sedaris